By Nikolaus von Twickel / Staff WriterThe much discussed "reset" of troubled U.S.-Russia relations will kick off this week when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet for the first time.
Lavrov and Clinton will see each other Monday at a donor's conference for Gaza recovery hosted by Egypt at the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The two diplomats will meet again Friday in Geneva for the first official talks between Moscow and Washington since the administration of President Barack Obama took office in January.
The meetings will be the second high-level personal contacts between the governments following talks by Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov at the Munich Security Conference in February. Biden won praise from Ivanov when he said that the Obama administration would like to "press the reset button" in relations with Moscow.
A senior U.S. diplomat said Friday that Obama's administration was determined to keep the focus on the positive at the Geneva talks.
"We're all looking forward to the meeting between Secretary Clinton and Minister Lavrov," Daniel Fried, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, told reporters in Washington. "There have been letters between the leaders, between the foreign ministers, outlining a way forward and a positive agenda, and it is on that that we want to build, but with our eyes open about some of the differences we have."
Those differences, Fried said, include the United States' refusal to recognize a Russian sphere of influence in neighboring countries or the independence of the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, according to a transcript on the State Department's web site.
In addition, "each European country has a right to seek membership" in NATO, Fried said, in reference to Moscow's hostility over Georgia's and Ukraine's bid to join the Western military alliance.
Lavrov said Friday that the Geneva talks would focus on arms control issues, including a follow-on agreement to the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START I, which expires in December.
Clinton and Lavrov will also discuss deeper cooperation in areas such as Afghanistan, the State Department said.
Geneva is regarded as a neutral territory and hosts the headquarters of a string of UN agencies.
Ties nosedived under the administration of President George W. Bush and sank to a post-Soviet low after Moscow's brief invasion of Georgia last summer.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has cautiously noted positive signals from the new administration, and Obama and President Dmitry Medvedev are expected to meet for the first time on the sidelines of a Group of 20 summit in London on April 2.
The Foreign Ministry made it clear that Monday's conference in Egypt would focus on the Middle East and not be a place for bilateral talks.
"You must not call this a meeting [between Clinton and Lavrov] but just a first personal contact," ministry spokesman Igor Lyakin-Frolov told The Moscow Times on Friday.
He said that to his knowledge, no special face-to-face meeting was planned because proper talks between the two would take place four days later.
Lyakin-Frolov noted that Clinton and Lavrov have already spoken by telephone. In the conversation in early February, the two top diplomats agreed to work more closely on key strategic issues.
Lavrov previously met Clinton during his tenure as ambassador to the United Nations when Clinton was first lady, the ministry spokesman said.
Clinton, on her second foreign trip this week, will also visit Israel and the Palestinian territories and meet NATO and EU foreign ministers in Brussels before traveling to Geneva.
Analysts said that while a breakthrough was unlikely, both sides had an interest in showing that the atmosphere was improving in relations.
Nikolai Zlobin, analyst with the Washington-based World Security Institute, said Washington would try to cooperate because it wanted a new nuclear arms reduction treaty. "There is no reason for Washington to be hard on Russia," Zlobin said.
He also said Moscow's attitude has been softened because of the deepening economic crisis. "The rhetoric has become much more flexible," he said, adding that the country's leadership had not issued any strong criticism of Washington since Obama took office.
The Foreign Ministry last week took unusual pains to stress that the U.S. State Department's annual human rights report, which was strongly critical of Russia, had been composed under the Bush administration. "We hope that the new administration will correct its approach to these reports," the ministry said in a statement on its web site.
Lavrov also refused on Thursday to comment on Washington's decision to place Patriot missiles in Poland, arguing that Warsaw could choose its own partners for military-technical cooperation. "U.S. plans to place a missile defense shield in Poland are a different thing because they touch on our security," Lavrov said, according to his ministry's web site.
The Obama administration has said that it will decide on the controversial missile defense plans only when it has proof that the shield will work.
Medvedev said in an interview published Sunday that he expected to hear "specific proposals" from Obama on the planned missile shield when they meet next month.
"I hope that during my first meeting with the U.S. President Barack Obama we'll be able to discuss this issue, which is extremely important for Europe," Medvedev said in an interview with Spanish media, according to a transcript on the Kremlin web site.
The Moscow Times